Just Another Writer–Chapter 14

I wish this chapter could be the story of how The Order of Things, shepherded by my two reasonably famous and influential supporters, found a production home. How all my actor friends were cast and, under Mike’s brilliant direction, gave the performances of their lives. How Barbara Rush, because of my play, entered a new and rewarding phase of her career. How the critics raved and the audiences flocked. How the show moved to New York, and I got to stand in front of a Broadway marquee, gazing up at the lights in wonder and . . . But I can’t. It didn’t happen. Even with Mike and Barbara Rush as part of the package, nobody wanted my play.

However, if I were willing to turn it into another play . . .

Let me begin with the fact that Mike Nussbaum has a wonderful imagination. He can read a script and see right away not just what a play is but what it can be. The potential is so obvious to him that he is sure it will be obvious to everyone else, and apparently it was obvious enough to Barbara Rush. After she read it, she invited me to lunch at a very nice restaurant on, of course, Rush Street. She was lovely and radiated glamor, every detail of her appearance glowing with perfection. I have no idea what I wore and can’t imagine how I looked, sitting across the table from her. Fortunately, glamor was not expected of me. She said she was surprised that a person who could write so wisely about human nature was so young. I must have stammered something.

So my possible future star and director both loved the play. After that . . . well, no one else seemed to have the perceptiveness to see its wonderful qualities. A lot of people read it, entirely because of my two supporters, and some of them were willing to think about producing it–also entirely because of my two supporters–but only if “it” became something else.

Remember how Bob Falls compared The Order of Things to You Can’t Take It with You? (That was in the previous chapter of this book–that and how I turned it into one of my most mortifying moments out of “high spirits.”) It was an apt, though wildly flattering, comparison and not surprising. I am a huge fan of George S. Kaufman. (As a writer. His personal life? Yecch.)

The basic premise of the play was that Paul, a nice, normal young man (Glenn), comes into a Chicago used bookstore looking for his roots. He believes that the bookstore owner, Elizabeth Bennett (Barbara Rush), is his mother. She does not specifically deny his claim. She does, however, refuse to give him any information about his roots, other than those in Western civilization. So he sticks around and meets the menagerie of people who hang out in the store, each of whom has an eccentric and somewhat exaggerated way of ordering the world. One character sees more connections in half an hour in the bookstore than Thomas Pynchon was able to squeeze into all of V. Another is a teenaged girl who models her life on tales of chivalry and codes of honor. There’s a Trotskyist, a draft evader, a former prostitute turned waitress . . . you get the general idea. Lots of ideas bouncing around and lots of humor provided by a motley crew. Well, after a wonderful reading by Ms. Bush and the others at St. Nicholas Theatre, the artistic director offered to consider the play if I turned it into a four-character moving-human-drama. (Hyphenation meaningful.)

I couldn’t and didn’t do that, but I did revise the play again and again, based on many different opinions of what it should be and say and, most particularly, how it should end. My original draft had a very controversial ending, which surprised most people and outraged some. Eventually even Mike wanted me to change the ending. Other suggestions were that the draft evader should become a veteran and that the waitress/former prostitute with whom Paul falls in love should become a “former” lesbian instead. (Still shameful but more likable, I guess. I never did really understand that one, for many, many reasons.)

The day came at last that I had to put the script away in a drawer. It had become a lost cause. The story I wanted to tell in the first place was buried under layers of other people’s ideas, and I couldn’t recover it. I couldn’t even remember it. Lesson? Don’t let anyone screw around with your play until it’s big enough and strong enough to defend itself. Did I learn that lesson? Read on, MacDuff.

Anyway, while all the hooha about The Order of Things was going on, Glen decided that my absolute refusal to consider marriage and children was not really fair, and so he broke things off with me. He was right, of course, but I’ve never managed to find a way to change who I am, so I said good-bye and went on with my life. (He agreed to read the role of Paul in the St. Nicholas reading nonetheless and was wonderful.)

In the meantime, Mike was scheduled to teach a scene-study class at St. Nicholas.  If you don’t know about scene study classes, they’re for improving, not learning, your skills. The students divide into groups, often pairs, and prepare short scenes from plays. They get these scenes from published scripts, and whatever was just done on Broadway is a popular choice. Then the teacher, a respected actor, director or both, comments on the actors’ work and sometimes re-directs the scene.

Mike and I had not yet given up on The Order of Things at this point, and he decided to use some scenes from my play in the class. That way, we’d both get a chance to see how they played when actors worked on them and presented them in class, nuanced–and memorized–for Mike’s critique. Of course, the students used scenes from other plays as well, but it was a great chance for me to learn more about my play and about theatre.

It was a warm night in July when the class started. I lived two blocks away from St. Nicholas, in an attic loft a few feet from the El tracks. I was very excited that night as I walked those two blocks, still entirely entranced by the theatre and unable to believe my luck.

The class was in the basement, as I remember. It was a decent-sized room, large enough anyway for a scene to be played out. At that first class, Mike had the actors move their chairs into a circle and then asked them to introduce themselves and tell a story about themselves. There were maybe twenty of them, most of them fairly experienced actors. Each one told a simple story, sometimes rueful, often funny. It was a pleasant way to get a sense of who each actor was.

We were about halfway around the circle when it was the turn of a tall, lanky young man with longish hair, cheekbones that Katharine Hepburn might have envied, and very dark eyes. Unlike all the others, this young man stood up as he told his story, put his rather large foot on his chair, and moved his whole body as he literally acted out some mildly embarrassing moment in his acting life. He was very funny, a little goofy, and full of life. After he sat down, the circle continued in its relatively staid fashion, and I listened attentively.

Have you ever considered that you might fall in love at first sight and not know it at the time? It happens. I didn’t realize the state I was in for weeks, even though things moved pretty quickly between me and Michael Nowak once his roommate explained to him that I was smitten. “She keeps watching you,” Judith told him. (They shared an apartment but were not romantically involved. She was in the scene study class, too.) He hadn’t noticed it and neither had I. But once she pointed it out, he went into action and that was that.

I didn’t see Michael act until several weeks into both the class and our romance. His first scene partner got sick and had to drop out of the class before they could present their scene. When he was finally scheduled to present, he had prepared a scene from The Shadowbox with a really good actor named Marge Kotlisky. At least two scenes preceded them that night. Mike gave detailed and insightful notes after each pair of actors finished their scene. He gave the actors direction, and they adjusted a portion of the scene to reflect it.

It was, as always, very instructive, but I was almost too nervous to pay attention. Can you imagine what it would be like to be crazy in love with a mediocre actor? Or, God forbid, a bad one? I could, and it didn’t sound appealing. What would I do if my new love was a talentless schlump?

Finally, Michael and Marge took possession of the area designated as the stage and performed their scene, a meeting at a hospice between a dying young man’s mother (Marge) and his lover (Michael). When they finished, the room was silent. After a moment, Mike said, “I’m sure I’ll have something to say about this, but right now I can’t think what it could be.”

I was so relieved I could have cried.

So. This book is not about romances and relationships, but the fact that I joined my life with that of Michael Nowak is something you need to know, because that has influenced everything that followed. Specifically, two years after we met, I persuaded him, along with his roommate Judith Easton, to start a theatre company.

But in the meantime, Jan and Ra and I became involved in writing what one critic would later call “an old-fashioned, contemporary feminist backstage musical comedy fantasy melodrama.” And that’s a pretty accurate description of the process, too.

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6 Responses to Just Another Writer–Chapter 14

  1. Pingback: Chapter Fourteen is up. | kathleenthompsonwriter

  2. sacosgrove says:

    Started with this chapter. I came to Chicago in the late 80’s and remember Commons, even auditioned a couple of times. I worked with Mike Nussbaum at the Organic Theater on a reading of JJ Johnston’s play during the production of Bleacher Bum’s that Montegna directed. I lived above Joel’s at the time. I will go back to the beginning. I am near DC now. You have an amazing life story. Peace. Sarah

  3. Wow. How interesting! You actually auditioned for us, And you lived above Joel’s. Was that the restaurant on Clark St. that had interesting textile decorations?

  4. sa cosgrove says:

    Yes, it was. It had a Southwestern theme, if I recall correctly. Organic did a reading of JJ’s play and Mike directed it. I auditioned for JJ and Mike, but was too young for the role-at the time! He was very kind and had supportive things to say. I was fortunate enough to be Jeff Recommended shortly thereafter. I do believe that audition gave me confidence to push ahead. Funny how one experience can really change a person’s trajectory. You speak to that in Chapter 14. Looking forward to the beginning!

  5. Ellyn says:

    OK I’m caught up, you can write more now! Please, now!

  6. I’m working on it, Ellyn. In fact, I’m almost there. Thanks for your lovely impatience.

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